Kwame Nsiah Apau (popularly known as Okyeame Kwame)’s most treasured possession is a leather apron. He tells me “if my house is burning and I had to rescue anything, it will be that apron.”
It’s the apron he wore while washing dishes at a New York restaurant where he worked for three years. “So every time I see that apron, it reminds me of America and the hustle I went through and what my choices are.”
Of this period, he tells me “It is my deepest regret and my greatest adventure. It improved my rap, increased my horizon. I saw how professionals worked, how people in the arts lived, how they worked hard and didn’t complain.”
So on his return home, things were never going to be the same and he made sure of that. He started a record label, One Mic Entertainment, and before long was churning out hit songs. The label would spurn other successful acts including Morris, The Voice and Bradez.
Under this label, Okyeame went on to win the Ghana Music Awards Artiste of the Year 2009.
He got the music right, but the business, not so much. For the first few years, One Mic struggled as a typical ‘Ghanaian one-man business’ with no proper structure or identity separate from the owner.
Frustrated that although the company made significant revenue, most of it did not hit the bottom line, Okyeame persuaded his wife Annica to join him to reverse the fortunes of the company.
Together, they restructured, creating a group company structure in 2012 – with Firm Bridges Communications as the parent company. Today, operating out of modern corporate offices in Awudome in Accra, the group has a number of subsidiaries focusing on advertising, marketing, events, talent management and PR.
They are the agent for Phonofile, the leading Nordic music aggregator and have developed a number of events and commercials for the likes of Coca-Cola and MDS-Lancet Laboratories.
The family man
As employers, Okyeame Kwame and Annica invest heavily in their people, cultivating meaningful relationships with each of their employees who they consider as a family.
Family is indeed important to Okyeame and he tells me his biggest fear is of losing Annica and his beautiful children, his pride and joy.
When he is not performing, he devotes his weekends to his children who are a regular presence at his offices.
Tearing down fortified perceptions
Breaking through the fortified wall of perception that a musician can’t be trusted with “any serious business venture in Ghana” has been part of his job for years.
“My biggest challenge as an artist running a business is perception, perception that the artist will fail, perception that he will abuse drugs, perception that he will destroy his family, perception that he will mismanage resources, perception that he will not have a strategy, he will not have a plan, perception that the artist is short-sighted. So when people are dealing with you though the name Okyeame Kwame opens lots of doors, people open the door and they have one eye closed for you,” he tells me.
His defence has been to do a resounding good job and be as professional as possible. It’s an urge to make his clients happy that has fuelled all that. He has to work harder than everyone else, because the odds are not in his favour from start, being an artist.
When I met him for this interview, he was at a video shoot for his latest song ‘Small Small’. In addition to shooting the video and doing the interview, he appeared to be doing a thousand other things.
When I commented he replied, “If I could change one thing about myself, I would pace myself. I want to finish the whole day’s work in one day. It is my weakness.”
Of the many things on Okyeame’s plate, the one that perhaps drives him the most is his campaign against Hepatitis B in Ghana. For the last six years, he has funded bringing free screenings and vaccinations for thousands of people unable to afford it. He tells me “I know that my responsibility as an artist moves beyond entertainment. I have a responsibility to affect the world positively.”
Last year, E-TV Ghana named him as one of the most influential 100 Ghanaians.
It is the kind of impact that could have easily evaded him, growing up in a rough part of central Kumasi, where many of his peers only dreamt about travelling to Libya or at best, selling second-hand clothes at Kejetia.
Thanks to great parenting, a doting and supporting wife, and a strong resolve to make something out of his life so he could give back, Okyeame Kwame is writing a different story; a story I am confident has many more inspiring chapters to come.